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Hat Tip To Kyrgyz Officials & Olympic Athletes: Wear It Or Else!

Kyrgyz march on Kalpak Day in Talas on March 3.

Outraged by the sight of a dog wearing their beloved kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have drafted legislation to raise the status of the felt, yurt-shaped headwear favored by many men.

Officially unveiled by its ruling and opposition co-authors on January 8, the bill would put the kalpak on equal footing with Kyrgyzstan's national hymn, flag, and its coat of arms.

It would require all male Kyrgyz officials -- including the president and foreign minister -- to wear the kalpak at official events and when traveling abroad.

All male athletes on Kyrgyz national teams would be strongly "advised" to wear a kalpak at events in Kyrgyzstan and abroad -- including the Olympics -- in order to "improve the image of the most important element of the cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people."

The bill reasons that their counterparts in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei always wear the songkok cap at official events and the Kyrgyz can therefore do the same with the kalpak.

The authors of the legislation even borrowed some lines from late Kyrgyz literary giant Chingiz Aitmatov to promote their bill about the country's favorite chapeau.

"You will see light in heaven, know -- this is a star. You will see who put on a kalpak, know -- this is a Kyrgyz," Aitmatov once wrote.

A man in a kalpak
A man in a kalpak

The kalpak bill follows the appearance in December of images of an Akita pup with a white kalpak on its head at a dog show at a downtown Bishkek shopping mall.

The photos sparked patriotic indignation from politicians and celebrities, as well as on social-media sites.

Tazabek Ikramov of the opposition Onuguu-Progress party demanded that police bring the owner of the dog to justice for "insulting" the kalpak.

Another legislator, Ryskeldi Mombekov of the governing Social Democratic Party, echoed his colleague's anger. "We put our national symbol on a dog," he fumed, according to "They made a dog Kyrgyz, and a Kyrgyz [symbol] a dog."

"Tomorrow a pig will wear a kalpak and the national flag will be used as cat litter," Mombekov added.

The Akita's young owner, who is reportedly an ethnic Russian, said she was surprised at the negative backlash in the press and expressed concern about showing up at her school.

But popular TV anchorwoman Assol Moldokmatova came to her defense, writing on her Facebook page that "we have to thank this girl for speaking Kyrgyz, dancing a Kyrgyz national dance, and for being a patriot even though she is ethnic Russian."

Former legislator Ishenbai Kadyrbekov suggested that passing a law forcing people to wear traditional ethnic clothing may not be such a good idea for a multiethnic country like Kyrgyzstan.

"To have to identify yourself as 'Kyrgyz' by wearing a kalpak is wrong," he said.

About one-fifth of Kyrgyzstan's population of 6 million is made up of ethnic Uzbeks (about 15 percent) and Russians (6 percent).

Tempest, Meet Teacup

Film director Yrysbek Jabirov, who helped to successfully lobby parliament in 2016 to designate March 5 as national Kalpak Day, sent an open letter to police officials and demanded that the dog show's organizers seek public forgiveness, since "the kalpak on the animal made a mockery of the Kyrgyz people."

The organizers responded by saying they were not responsible for the costumes that participants put on their dogs and added it was simply a dog show.

Still upset by the photos a week after the December 22 show, several activists held a rally outside the mall where the event was held to protest the "insult to national dignity."

They also demanded that the mall's owners pay a fine of 10 million soms (about $143,000).

But many other Kyrgyz were bemused by the uproar the unsuspecting hound and his hat caused, and some criticized lawmakers for devoting so much attention to the topic.

"[The deputies] need to pay attention to the issues of corruption, the environment, and security," human rights activist Dinara Oshurahunova said. "But parliament [has instead] ground to a halt [discussing this issue]. What is the benefit of this [kalpak] initiative? What will change if we all put on kalpaks?"

Civil activist Rita Karasartova summed up the situation: "It is not what [Kyrgyz officials] wear that is important but what they do [as politicians] and how honestly they do it [that matters]."

Written by Pete Baumgartner with reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Kanymgul Elkeeva
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    Pete Baumgartner

    Pete Baumgartner is the editor for Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and the Balkans for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

  • 16x9 Image

    Kanymgul Elkeeva

    Kanymgul Elkeeva is a Bishkek-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service who joined the company in 2009. She has covered a wide range of topics including human rights, migration, and social issues and won awards from international organizations for her reporting. She studied journalism at Bishkek Humanitarian University.